It is May, still spring, I‘m sure, and I am ready to discuss the third instalment of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet. This week, we have finally had a few nice warm days in a row and there are more to come. So before it gets too summery, I wanted to see what story this gifted author has to tell me this season. Before even reading the first sentence, you notice her playing with fonts and formats. Varying font sizes invoke newspaper collages and the sense of different voices shouting at the reader – a bombardments of headlines, statements, opinions.
“Now what we don’t want is facts.”
I’d say Spring has the most powerful opening to any of these volumes so far. Smith is skilled at picking out individual phrases and images that stand so powerfully for a set of world views. Or, perhaps, that is just a side-effect of how polarised the world has become, that you can tell what someone believes, ‘who they are’, by their slogans.
Again, Smith introduces us to a set of colourful, slightly oddball characters with different experiences and political convictions. An almost-forgotten filmmaker mourns the death of his best friend and the demise of his career. A young guard at an immigrant detention centre and is challenged by the realisation that being the smartest one in such a facility has less meaning out in the world. A witty teenage girl with the magic abilities of turning invisible and convincing authorities to do as she says braces herself for a journey into the unknown, nourished only by hope. As in the previous two novels, the protagonists manage to stand for wider social groups or movements, while also embodying private, familiar dynamics. Lost souls, from all walks of life is who Smith has dedicated her third volume to and as the seasons get brighter, the subjects get darker.
From page one, I knew this was going to be an excellent book and yet it continued to amaze me. Ali Smith’s prose is exciting and astonishing in its combination of playful humour and searing indictments. In this way, she manages to make fearless proclamations without ever being heavy-handed. She goes deep into the ideological knots UK society is entangled in today. Her writing is always much deeper than pretty sentences: her love of language and it’s powers are obvious in the ways she uses etymology and foreign languages to get into meanings inaccessible in her native English. It is as if the whole novels, every word she selects to leave on the page, work to fight that one scary statement from the opening pages:
“We need it not to matter what words mean.”
Take this book outside. Sit in the gras with this novel of cycles and seasons, love and fear. I am looking forward to the final season, but I am dreading the end of Ali Smith’s literary year.
“A thousand thousand of us. And if they, I mean we, don’t sew fast enough, the line of children stretching away for miles behind the child Paddy tells him, then the people running the factory hold our hands under the needles, make us put our feet on the footpumps and press down and sew thread through our own hands. There isn’t a T-shirt in existence, there isn’t a common chocolate bar, we haven’t a hand in the making of. There isn’t a history we’re not deep in the pigfat of the money of. We’re the factory. We’re eaten alive. That makes us the hungriest ghosts.”